True story: I once came up with an idea to make a documentary on Divine simply because I thought the title Shit-Eating Grin was too good to pass up. Naturally, my complete and utter inability to do anything related to actually making a film sort of stopped that idea before it even got off the ground. I was happy then when I discovered a documentary was indeed being made about John Waters’ bad, mad actor muse and ‘80s HI-NRG super diva Divine, albeit a little bit disappointed that my – let’s face it – brilliant title never saw the light of day. Can you imagine that poster?
What we have instead is I Am Divine from director Jeffrey Schwarz who, judging from his IMDb profile, is known predominantly for making DVD supplemental material (13 Ghosts: The Magic of Illusion-O and Blonde Poison: The Making of Basic Instinct being my favourite titles from the long list of possibilities). I Am Divine is certainly a step in the right direction and fans of the portly performer born as Harris Glenn Milstead will likely revel in the documentary’s all-encompassing career overview. While it lacks the scrappy vivaciousness of a John Waters production, it’s a classy assemblage of clips and interviews with both Divine and his collaborators and family. I could have done without the cheap animation segues that are occasionally slotted in for no good reason, but Divine was such a flamboyantly entertaining figure, as were most of the people that surrounded him which is good news for viewers, that they’re forgivable in the larger context.
It was a good decision on Schwarz’s behalf to punctuate the film with an interview that Milstead did out of costume and make-up not too soon before his untimely death in 1988 three weeks after the release of arguably his most acclaimed performance as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. It grounds the film in rich pathos of a man whose entire life in the public eye had been as somebody else, reminding his fans and newcomers alike that there was indeed a real person under the crooked eye make-up, frightening hairline and confronting fashion choices. The soft-spoken and sweet-natured Milstead discusses (with whom, however, I can’t recall the film mentioning) his personal and family life alongside his career that gives clarity to many of the more outrageous stunts performed over his near two-decade career in front of the camera.
Beginning with John Waters’ shorts that saw Divine do everything from roll around in a pig sty to get raped by a giant prop lobster, the film quickly shifts to the film that put him on the map of all things filth: Pink Flamingos. There are plenty of other retrospective looks at the films of Waters so Schwartz’s film wisely keeps the attention focused squarely on Divine and his input into the movies. Waters makes a deliciously wicked interview subject, continuing to follow his own advice from 1987 rib-buster non-fiction book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters and accepting every possibly job that gets offered. He is by far the most illuminating and entertaining the documentary’s many talking head interview subjects. When discussing Pink Flamingos’ infamous denouement he humorously recalls asking, “What can we do that isn’t against the law… yet?” The film is richer for his involvement and without it there would be little point.
Elsewhere, Divine’s mother Frances appears and at least does a better job at giving familial context to Divine’s life than the mother of John Wojtowicz in The Dog. Meanwhile a rollcall of former co-stars pop in to provide an anecdote or two including Tab Hunter discussing the relative ease with which he entered Polyester’s unconventional love affair, and Ricki Lake discusses Divine’s initial dislike of her on the set of Hairspray due to her having the larger part.
There’s likely little in I Am Divine that longtime devotees of The Dreamlanders won’t already know, although newcomers – perhaps those who only discovered him thanks to the Broadway and cinematic adaptations of Hairspray or through a casual late night cult screening – will surely find the film a wonderful jumping off point. I wished the film had more of an adventurous spirit in its form, and perhaps more attention could have been paid to her even more illustrious side-career as pop star who appeared on Good Morning America in the US, Top of the Pops in the UK and Countdown in Australia. Nevertheless, I Am Divine will make audiences fall right back in lust (in the dust?) with the ravenous and unlikely movie star no matter what and Schwartz has made a film that would impress Divine’s biggest fan: himself. It’s all about Divine, darling and don’t you forget it. I Am Divine ultimately provides a definitive declaration of Divine’s impact as a radical and essential figure in film, his long-standing effect on popular culture, and, ultimately, his undeniably raw, fascinating talent. Simply, I Am Divine is just that: divine. B+